Definition of Sola Scriptura
Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).
Controversy of Sola Scriptura
Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:
Related Resource: Six Myths About Sola Scriptura by C. Michael Patton
“There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practise piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.” (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 1-4, 7-9)
“They [heretics] gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.
For they [the Apostles] were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon to the Church, but if they should fall away, the direst calamity. Proofs of the things which are contained in the Scriptures cannot be shown except from the Scriptures themselves.” (Against Heresies, 1:8:1, 3:1:1, 3:3:1, 3:12:9)
Recommended Book: The Shape of Sola Scripura by Keith Mathison
“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (On the Duties of the Clergy, 1:23:102)
“The Arians, then, say that Christ is unlike the Father; we deny it. Nay, indeed, we shrink in dread from the word. Nevertheless I would not that your sacred Majesty should trust to argument and our disputation. Let us enquire of the Scriptures, of apostles, of prophets, of Christ. In a word, let us enquire of the Father. So, indeed, following the guidance of the Scriptures, our fathers [at the Council of Nicaea] declared, holding, moreover, that impious doctrines should be included in the record of their decrees, in order that the unbelief of Arius should discover itself, and not, as it were, mask itself with dye or face-paint.” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1:6:43, 1:18:119)
Clement of Alexandria (150-215)
“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits will not desist from the search after truth until they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.” – Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 7:16)
“In order to leave room for such profitable discussions of difficult questions, there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind. In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority. Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself.” – Augustine (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 11:5)
“Every sickness of the soul hath in Scripture its proper remedy.” (Expositions on the Psalms, 37:2; notice the sufficiency of Scripture being iterated here)
“Let nothing be innovated, says he, nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua the son of Nun: ‘The book of this law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.’ Also the Lord, sending His apostles, commands that the nations should be baptized, and taught to observe all things which He commanded. If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles, that those who come from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid upon them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed.” (Letter 73:2)
Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386)
“For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” (Catechetical Lectures, 4:17)
“This seal have thou ever on thy mind; which now by way of summary has been touched on in its heads, and if the Lord grant, shall hereafter be set forth according to our power, with Scripture-proofs. For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.” (A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Oxford: Parker, 1845, The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril 4.17).
Dionysius of Alexandria (265)
“Nor did we evade objections, but we endeavored as far as possible to hold to and confirm the things which lay before us, and if the reason given satisfied us, we were not ashamed to change our opinions and agree with others; but on the contrary, conscientiously and sincerely, and with hearts laid open before God, we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the Holy Scriptures.” (Cited in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, 7:24)
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)
“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.
And to those who are expert only in the technical methods of proof a mere demonstration suffices to convince; but as for ourselves, we were agreed that there is something more trustworthy than any of these artificial conclusions, namely, that which the teachings of Holy Scripture point to: and so I deem that it is necessary to inquire, in addition to what has been said, whether this inspired teaching harmonizes with it all. And who, she replied, could deny that truth is to be found only in that upon which the seal of Scriptural testimony is set?” – (“On the Soul and the Resurrection” A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 442)
Basil the Great (379)
Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right (Letter CCLXXXIII, ANCF, p. 312).
Hilary of Poitiers (300-368)
“Their treason involves us in the difficult and dangerous position of having to make a definite pronouncement, beyond the statements of Scripture, upon this grave and abstruse matter….We must proclaim, exactly as we shall find them in the words of Scripture, the majesty and functions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so debar the heretics from robbing these Names of their connotation of Divine character, and compel them by means of these very Names to confine their use of terms to their proper meaning….I would not have you flatter the Son with praises of your own invention; it is well with you if you be satisfied with the written word.” (On the Trinity, 2:5, 3:23)
Recommended Reading: Now that I’m a Christian by C. Michael Patton (has a lengthy discussion in chapter one on the different types of authority and how they interact with Scripture)
“When, then, anything in my little work seems to you harsh, have regard not to my words, but to the Scripture, whence they are taken.” (Letter, 48:20)
“I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among these books [Scriptures], to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” (Letter, 53:10)
“I shall yield to scripture alone.” (Dialogues, 1)
Here is a good quote from J. N. D. Kelly to sum it all up:
The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by (Scripture) is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the Fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis (Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978, pp. 42, 46).